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The Five Books of Jesus
Book One, Chapter Four
When everyone is awake, Jesus announces they’re going back into Capernaum. Since Zebedee’s employees took the boats home, it’ll be a long walk, but Jesus says it’s better if they go in after dark anyway: it’s hard for him to find a moment alone under the sun, but the starlight suits him.
On the road, Jesus asks them questions: what do they think of this scripture or that? How do they imagine the kingdom of God? Why did they follow him in the first place? Simon isn’t so sure about his answers: he’s no scholar, all he really knows about the kingdom is his own vague sense of longing, and the truth is that he followed Jesus because at the time, it seemed absolutely clear that was the right thing to do.
Maybe Jesus notices Simon’s unease, because he switches soon to stories. He tells about a merchant who’s bought and sold beauty his whole life but gives that all up when he finds a perfect pearl, and Simon says, “that’s a rare sort of man.” Jesus nods, and tells another story: about a magnificent bush, half again taller than a king, where the birds from all around come to nest and to sing: the bush is in a field, which is owned by another beauty-loving man, who in point of fact did nothing more than plant the smallest of all his seeds in a good spot of ground.
“What’s the seed?” asks James.
“A mustard seed,” says Jesus, “it was black mustard, I think.”
“I mean, what’s the seed really?” asks James.
But Jesus just smiles.
Yes, this is how they walk: Jesus doing most of the talking, Simon and James nodding, asking questions, now and then making a comment while John takes furtive, searching glances at Jesus, and Andrew ties knot after knot into the loose threads on his shirt.
They slow down as they get close to town, then have to stop a while and wait until the night has fallen like a cloak over the city. Simon is more than a little embarrassed to be sneaking into his own house with a new master this way, like a thief in the night, and prays quietly as they approach that his mother-in-law won’t wake up.
She doesn’t, but Simon’s wife does. As soon as she hears the first sounds of the five men approaching, she lights an oil lamp she has kept beside her bed the past two nights in case of a moment such as this. She whispers a greeting to the surprised men and ushers them into the house, prepares a sleeping place for them, and offers to leave them her light to augment the moon’s if they have more to plan or discuss.
“Just one thing,” says Jesus, and he tells her to sit, to stay for it. Then he tells a story about a woman making dough with just a little leaven and describes how that little bit of leaven transforms the entire loaf.
After he’s finished, Simon’s wife takes the lamp back to her room and puts it out. Though it’s very late, she lies awake, staring out across the sea of stars, remembering her surprise when Zebedee’s servants returned from the lake to tell her they’d brought back the boat her husband and brother-in-law had simply abandoned. Simply abandoned to follow a strange new preacher who speaks with a strange and moving simplicity she loves.
She is dreaming of Simon and Jesus when a rooster’s crow startles her awake.
Over a breakfast prepared by Simon’s wife and her mother and blessed by Andrew, it’s Jesus who indirectly raises the issues of finances and fish. “Who starts to build a tower,” he asks the four who followed him away from the lake, “if he doesn’t have the materials to finish it?” Simon looks a little uncomfortable again, but his wife and her mother speak up: they talked it over yesterday, and they’ll be fine. They’ll work hard. They’re prepared to make sacrifices. Zebedee and Salome have offered to help if necessary. They trust Jesus, they say, and they trust Simon’s choice.
Jesus nods his approval, and then begins to speak not of finances or fish but of the flowers that grow wild in a field. A lily, he says, can’t afford fine fabric and doesn’t know how to sew, but even Solomon’s glory couldn’t compare to what God gave the lilies. The lilies, who trust Him for all they need, who are adorned with a beauty spun of pure faith.
It’s of faith he speaks again before the congregation on the Sabbath, of Abraham who served angels not knowing who they were, of how the angels announced that a long-awaited promise would soon be fulfilled. The things he says drive half the town crazy with curiosity: never mind Abraham’s long-ago guests, what’s the real identity of this cryptic preacher? Never mind the birth of Isaac and descendants who number as the stars, what long-awaited promise is Jesus really hinting at?
No one brings their sick to him on the Sabbath, of course—only a matter of life and death necessitates healing on the holiest of days—but he ends up being followed back to Simon’s house anyway by a crowd of would-be students who hang on his every word. The thing that amazes them is this: most scholars speak as if the scriptures are a mystery and their teachings hold a key, but Jesus speaks as if the scriptures themselves are only the key to a deeper mystery he holds.
Within a few days, people are coming to Capernaum just to meet Jesus. Many are prospective students, mostly young men whose imaginations have been captured by reports from the cities of a new, imprisoned prophet and reports from the villages of a man who speaks with power and possesses extraordinary understanding. Others come as patients: they are sick enough to leave home in search of healing, but still strong enough to travel.
Since it’s hard to be followed at all times by both a school and a clinic, the two sets of brothers control the crowd: today, James and John are managing the students while Andrew and Simon attempt to organize the sick so they can wait comfortably. They are working their way through the people who have gathered, collecting information—this man has come from Chorazin with an abscessed tooth, that elderly woman has crossed the stream and walked the few miles from Bethsaida because of persistent pains in her leg—when a different sort of patient approaches.
He has come from the desert itself, though years ago he lived in Capernaum. His hair is matted and his eyes are wild and unsettling; there are dirty scars all over his naked body where he has scratched or cut himself as if trying to escape his own skin. And maybe that’s exactly what he has been doing, because it’s clear to even the travelers from out of town that this man is possessed by an unclean spirit.
Imagine spending years in a mind which is no longer entirely your own, which feels unnatural and dull under the force of some unseen occupation. Imagine feeling sometimes angrier than your body can contain and sometimes so empty you don’t move for days, but always wrong, so very wrong, and so alone it’s as if you are a limb that has been cut from the body of a community which no longer accepts you.
The possessed man screams, and then he weeps as he approaches Jesus. Simon and Andrew aren’t quite sure what to do: they know they’re not supposed to touch a man like that, now that they’re religious disciples, but they also know that if he’s wandered into town, something ought to be done. “Leave me alone, you Jesus of Nazareth!” shouts the man, or maybe the unclean spirit who’s been part of him so long. “Have you come to destroy me?” he yells, as if Jesus had come to him and not the other way around—then he mutters something unintelligible and blasphemes so loudly the gathered students wince. But Jesus doesn’t flinch, he just stares the possessed man down and says in a voice that is quiet but deadly firm, “Be quiet. And leave him alone.”
When the possessed man begins to claw at himself, Simon and Andrew forget about ritual purity, diving forward instead to restrain him. He screams again and then all at once he’s like dead weight in their arms so that they stagger and nearly drop him, but Simon is quick and keeps the man up until they can find a spot to lay him down. His breathing is heavy at first, but begins to calm once he’s flat on his back.
Jesus walks over. The man opens his eyes, which now look remarkably clear. Jesus takes some balm and puts it on the fresh fingernail cuts. The man inhales quickly with the sting, which mostly masks the way some of the students inhale with the shock of seeing the supposed saint touch a polluted body.
“How are you feeling?” says Jesus.
The man swallows and nods. “I could use some clothes,” he says.
This time nothing masks the sharp intake of breath from across the gathered crowd. Jesus has been teaching them about faith, but when they see that the unclean spirit really obeyed him and left the man, what many of them feel is somewhere between awe and raw fear.
Any man who even the unclean spirits obey is either holy or deadly or both.
Is he a prophet? Is he a saint? Is he a prince of devils? A scourge from God?
If there’s more talk about Jesus after this day, there are also more whispers.
The whispers gain strength the next week when Simon’s mother-in-law collapses on her way back from the well. She tries to stand up and gather the shards of the broken water vessel and go on as if she’d just dropped it through clumsy accident, but she’s too weak from the fever she’s been hiding and falls down again after slipping on the spill-slicked rock. And though the bystanders are quick to help her up and half-carry her home, they can’t help but wonder whether all this is coincidence or a sign, because it seems fairly obvious God is punishing the household that is supporting Jesus.
These whispers rush across the city like a wind, and Simon can hear the chill in the voices that tell him his wife’s mother is suddenly sick, can detect the cold tones of unspoken accusation: they touched an unclean man; their Master gives commands to devils; if she dies, the fault is theirs.
Only the most avid of Jesus’ students follow him and the brothers back to Simon’s house, enduring the dark looks of the people they pass on the way. Women whose husbands are out in the fields close their doors as Jesus and the brothers walk by their houses. They try to hide their children away from whatever misfortune he may be carrying in his wake.
A neighbor stands in front of Simon’s home, steps in front of Simon, who leads the procession’s way. “Think twice,” the neighbor says, cocking his head toward Jesus, “before letting that one back inside.”
“He’ll heal her,” Simon says, and brushes the man aside.
She’s lying on a mat in the courtyard; Simon’s wife is kneeling beside her, pressing damp cloths to her head. Simon kneels down beside his wife, takes his mother-in-law’s hand. “He’s here now,” he says. “It’s all right.”
And then Jesus is kneeling on her other side, taking her other hand—her face softens, and she smiles. He offers her a hand up, as if she’s a child who’s just tripped, and she looks at him with the same pure gratitude a child might have as she rises. She laughs and puts Simon’s hand on her forehead, though he doesn’t need to feel the cool of it to know she’s been healed. Andrew and James exhale with relief and John sings a little prayer.
“Do you know your son’s name?” says Jesus.
“You mean Simon?” says his mother-in-law.
“I’m going to change it to Peter,” says Jesus, “because when the city doubted, your Simon was as steady as a rock.”
Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law smiles again. “You must be almost ready for dinner,” she says, “but it might be late. I’m sorry.” And she walks right out the door, past the astonished neighbor, to fetch water she can bring home and boil. Peter’s wife politely excuses herself and starts the fire up so it will be ready when her mother gets back.
“With such steadiness around you,” says Jesus, “it’s no wonder you’re so strong.”
But as Peter watches the women return so quickly to their labors, as if they are desperate to show they can manage the household alone, he worries that he doesn’t deserve his new name, that there are cracks of concern which run straight through the granite faith his Master now expects from him.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.